Women should exercise social networking caution

Date: November 27, 2009
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As the region’s technological capacity grows, a new kind of gender violence is emerging in Southern Africa. In this new media age, the information super highway has become a tool for social networking and the world has become a global village where people of different walks of life are meeting. However, women in countries like Malawi are quickly recognising technology, such as the internet, as both a potential asset and a threat.

Malawi is a land locked country in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) region covering an area of 118,000 square kilometers. It ranks at position 14 as one of the poorest countries in the world by the latest United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Index report of 2008-2009.

Many people in Malawi’s towns and cities are connected to the information superhighway also known as the internet. In the country, cybercafés are sprouting each day.

There are man internet service providers such as Malawi Net Limited, Skyband, Burco Electronic Systems, Globe Malawi dot net and the mobile phone company, TNM. Although poverty is common in the country, people in urban areas are fast becoming conversant with the international reach of new technologies. People in offices and in internet cafés are online talking to friends in remote parts of the world such as Canada, Sweden and United States of America, just to mention a few.

Most people in the country complain about the slow internet connectivity, which makes downloading of movies and music amongst other things difficult. However, this problem may soon be history; there are plans to get Malawi connected to the marine optic fibre cable to run under the Indian Ocean, a project to be implemented by Seacom.

Women are also joining the world of online social networking, using networking sites such as face book, and Tagged.com. Sabrine Niyonsenga, a young woman managing Maxinet International, an internet café in the city of Lilongwe says she likes face book than any other social networking site. “Face book is a good social networking centre, you can talk to three people at once, it does not even cost a lot of money,” says Niyonsenga.

She adds that the cyberspace has enabled people from all over the world to easily communicate within minutes. Niyonsenga discloses she has made 101 friends over a period of eleven months in 2009 alone, 50 of whom are in Malawi, while the rest are in South Africa, Canada, Belgium, Madagascar, United States of America and Kenya.

She adds that she chats about everyday issues such as cookery, music and movies. In addition she says that social networking relieves her of emotional problems faced in her every day life. “I think face book is the most popular social networking site, I can get out of my miserable time when I am on face book, this is why this site is the biggest.”

However, although enjoying the information super high way, she notes that cyberspace crime and harassment is being committed at alarming levels hence a need for women to be extra careful when surfing on the internet.

She recounts being offended by a comment posted by another face book user on her photograph, saying her beauty could even tempt the devil; the matter even embarrassed her family.

“Cyberspace crime is really a danger and it exists, because most of the times, you are dealing with somebody you don’t know, all sorts of terrible things can happen to you,” she stresses.”

“One day I was watching Oprah Winfrey talk show, it was about a 13 year old girl who was dating a 27-year-old man online, they arranged for a rendez-vous, when they met unfortunately the girl was raped, finally the dismayed girl committed suicide,” narrates Niyonsenga.

Niyonsenga warns women in particular to avoid online dating and confirming friends not well known to them in social networking sites, as dangerous criminals use cyberspace to dupe unsuspecting people, including women.

In light of this, the Malawi Law Commission and Norwegian Church Aid have included cyberspace crime in the anti- trafficking legislation to be tabled in parliament to curb women trafficking.

Tiwonge Kaonga, a 22-year-old Cisco Networking student at Lilongwe Technical College in Lilongwe in her first year says she prefers using Yahoo Messenger as part of her social networking time. She likes the Yahoo Messenger because of its features such as news and current affairs and web chats with friends who have Yahoo email accounts.

“You see I am addicted to the internet, a day cannot pass without touching a computer, the internet makes life easier, I don’t need to waste time and money going to the post office to post letters,” notes Kaonga.

She however admits although the internet makes life easier, it has negative effects such as getting emails from unknown individuals who have an aim of conning people. “One day I got an email in my Yahoo email account from unknown man claiming to be based in South Africa, who was asking me to give him my contact details for no purpose, I just disregarded it,” she explains.

Another woman, Pilirani Kamwaza warns women to be careful when on the cyberspace not be victims of cyberspace crime. “Its bad cyberspace crime is out there, sometimes people can trick you, only to leave you stranded, we need to be careful.

“Just imagine, there is a story of a Malawian woman who was promised a job in South Africa by a person who she found on the social networking sites, only to be stranded there with nothing, when the person was no where to be seen,” says Kamwaza.

Currently the Ministry of Information and Civic Education is seeking views from the Malawian public on the draft ICT policy and its implementation strategies. However, issues of cyberspace crime need to be clearly demonstrated in terms of redress, as this consultation process continues.

Dingaan Mithi is programme officer for Journalists Association Against AIDS in Malawi. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service series for the 16 Days of Activism.



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